Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Some Afterthoughts on Cherriots

Thoughts in no particular order...

Too much of this (via the publisher)
Tax Transparency

Even though the City formally has to take a "hands-off" position to any advocacy, the City really ought to publish a neutral list of tax abatements and other public subsidies as an aid to assessing claims about unfair taxation.

New disclosure standards
There was a lot of anxious and animated hand-waving by opponents of the transit measure, but not a lot of fact.

A factual statement of which companies benefit from tax abatements and other public subsidy wouldn't necessarily address the emotional side and prior commitments of folks and their arguments, but at least it would assist in a factual assessment of things.

More Robust Advocacy

As push-back and advocacy, the Yes for Cherriots campaign wasn't very strong. It seemed like it was fundamentally a reaction to the Chamber campaign, and even as a reaction it wasn't much of a riposte.

A commenter remarked that
The Cherriots' message was absent. I found myself perplexed as to what their strategy could have been. I saw no data to paint the picture of need, I saw no evidence suggesting that every other option had been exhausted, and I received little or no feedback when I asked for information to help in painting the picture.
"No data" might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there sure wasn't "a lot of data." The case was assumed more than made, and it lacked vision and strategy.

The argument for a payroll tax was "'tis but a scratch," that it was a small and insignificant dent to business, you'll hardly notice the pain.

There was never a case made that "a payroll tax is the single best way to fund evening and weekend service." The brevity of the FAQ is indicative. So Cherriots had something of a credibility gap - in addition to the distrust fostered by the whole Courthouse Square fiasco, which perhaps they should have addressed explicitly as part of the campaign. Since Portland and Eugene use a payroll tax, it is something of a convention to fund transit by payroll tax in Oregon, but conventionality alone doesn't make something optimal of course.

Having followed the Cherriots board agenda and information packets through the process, it seems like the decision for this funding package was based principally on the polling:

Regular folks give more support to a payroll tax

Property tax not as favored
The resulting decision was the answer to the question, "Between a property tax and a payroll tax, which seems more palatable to voters?" It looks like it was a decision of convenience, a little shallow.

The decision and the measure was not an answer to "What is the best way to fund evening and weekend service?" There wasn't a strong vision or a strategy, and this left the campaign open to "merchants of doubt" and probably empty claims that the Chamber is committed to a fairer and better solution.

From the campaign we also never saw point-by-point rebuttals to the letters and advertising from the Chamber.

Finally, Cherriots should have distilled a set of their year-end financials and operational reports into a short, easy-to-grasp slide deck that makes the case for Cherriots current thrift - there's no more savings to be squeezed out - the need for the expansion, and the ways that service cuts have harmed in the past decade. In response to claims about "empty buses," there is a body of evidence that shows ridership rising with service levels rising. Transit works best when it is frequent and close. Even if Cherriots can't advocate, they didn't mobilize the facts or make them easily available.

So yeah, it was not a strong and focused campaign.

Third Bridge

As for Cherriots' next steps. Well, they still have one bit of leverage. Stop playing nice with the Chamber! They're just going to continue to bully you. Pull your support from the Salem River Crossing. Return the favor. Either pull your support outright or at least use leverage to extract meaningful action and concessions from the Chamber.

Tax Reform?

And if the Chamber acts in good faith, there's an opportunity for something enduring.

It looks like Seattle is passing a nearly $1 billion dollar property tax levy for an omnibus transportation package.

But even in hippie Eugene, a library property tax levy was only passing with 51%.

Washington doesn't have compression issues like Oregon, and so that's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, the Chamber made some noise about supporting a "fairer" property tax measure, but that "support" might have been predicated on near-certainty that under our current system another property tax measure for bus service was certain to be defeated, so that seemed like a dummy, posturing kind of "support." Same for the noise about lottery dollars.

It may be that until we reform our property tax system and can talk about using the gas tax for transportation generally - including transit - and increase the gas tax, it may be that finding a solution for transit is not possible in our current tax system.

A payroll tax also fails the test of "raise taxes on things we want less of, reduce taxes on things we want more of." We all want more payroll, right? So by this test, even though Portland and Eugene have found a payroll tax an important ingredient in funding transit, by more global measures a payroll tax is almost certainly suboptimal. Even though the politics are difficult, we should instead raise taxes on things like gasoline and carbon and methane and congestion. Extract revenue from things we want to reduce while market-based pricing signals encourage the reduction.

So if the Chamber is serious about putting together a more rational and more broadly supported funding package, there's an opportunity to advocate for and enact some more fundamental changes to the tax system. The opportunity to answer for real, "What is the best way to fund evening and weekend service?" is there for the taking.

What are your thoughts about the campaign and what should be next?


Jim Scheppke said...

What would it take to be able to use the revenue from a local gas tax for improved transit? Would that take a constitutional amendment? If so we can forget about it. But if we could amend the ORS to make this possible that would make it an interesting possibility. I wonder how big a gas tax increase we would need to raise $5 million a year?

Anonymous said...

Here's another resource -

Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, "Local Funding Options for Public Transportation."

It's too bad this didn't get more attention earlier in the debate!

Jeff Schumacher said...

I think the Transit Board ran a poor campaign, and - as you stated - tried to rely on the argument that the tax wouldn't be a significant burden to businesses. I tend to agree with that argument, but it certainly isn't a winning argument in politics and the Transit Board should have known that. I am amazed that the Transit Board didn't try to pass a revenue measure when people were discussing the Third Bridge. The Board should have been vocally opposed to the Third Bridge, and offered up enhanced transit service as a relatively inexpensive way to alleviate traffic at peak hours. Sure, that wouldn't address weekend service, but it has more traction politically. The Transit Board will have more success when they can appeal to all the citizens that are affected by the limited congestion on the bridges. But if they continue to focus on weekend ridership (however much Salem should have it) they will face a very skeptical electorate.